Student Reflection – The Rhetoric of Memes (5.2)

Design Rationale/Project Reflection:

Below, Nadeem Persico-Shammas wrote two reflections–one reflecting on his role contributing to this website as one of several students, and one reflecting on his role as a paid managing editor.


Our class followed a natural progression towards the creation of this website. We met six times over seven weeks, during the second half of the Fall semester 2013. Every class period had a specific purpose that turned out to be a valuable asset when creating the site.

We began by discussing different types of rhetoric and how they could be applied to the analysis of internet memes. We focused mainly on epideictic, or celebratory, rhetoric, and it was at this point that we students began to seek out the memes that we would eventually write about for the site.

We read an essay by Michele Zappavigna, a digital media scholar who wrote a meticulously detailed analysis of the humor evident in several popular internet memes. Her discussion of frame-level humor and phrasal templates in particular proved to be essential when the time came for us to analyze humor in our chosen memes.

However, we felt that the most important pieces we engaged with were a couple of essays by Mikhail Bakhtin, in which he details the rhetorical concepts that we would apply to our study of internet memes: heteroglossia, the carnivalesque, and the chronotope. We spent two class sessions discussing these concepts, attempting to utilize them in the casual analysis of a few internet memes we brought to class.

Once we had all of these rhetorical tools in our belt, we began to work on our essays. We each wrote two essays: in one we applied Zappavigna’s theories to a chosen meme series to determine why the world found them funny. In the other we applied Bakhtin’s concepts to a meme, and with those concepts we tried to reach a critical conclusion on why these memes had become as popular as they did.

The production of the site was a collaborative effort. We chose to use Google Sites because our university has ties to its online infrastructure, and because it does not require extensive knowledge of HTML to use: our main purpose was to focus on writing as composition rather than coding. We worked as a team to determine the site’s layout and visual style. We chose the notebook theme because we felt it emphasized a nice connection between the written word and digital media. The visual metaphor of a notebook page depicted in pixels on a computer screen seemed appropriate for a class, since we tried to apply concepts of classical rhetoric to a new media production. With that framework, we decided on a grid layout of memes for the homepage, using visual representation of the memes’ images to give our visitors an overview of the website’s content. Since these memes are most easily recognizable for their image component, we felt that including the caption would not carry the same impact: we focused our analyses on meme series rather than individual examples.


As representative for the students in our class, I can confidently say that we each learned a great deal about humor and rhetoric in the digital age. Though we were all attracted to the class because of our interest in the spread of internet memes, I don’t know if any of us expected to gain such a solid critical framework applicable to the most popular and replicable form of humor on the internet today.

We laid out the site over the course of a single two-hour class period, which inevitably led to mistakes. We did not coordinate as much as we should have, leading to different formats and page layouts for each meme series. As editor, I cleaned up these pages with consistency as my most important goal. I wanted to strip any extraneous content from the site. Page navigation was not as fluid as I hoped, so I cleaned up the navigation system by organizing every page under a hierarchy determined by its “parent” meme. Some memes had multiple essays written about them, so I organized each subpage to highlight the contributor.

Since the essays were originally written as simple text documents, most contributors didn’t insert hyperlinks into their essays upon publication of the site. I went back through the essays to highlight any relevant outside sources with hyperlinks. The majority of my links were either to the particular meme’s Know Your Meme entry or to its relevant QuickMeme page. Know Your Meme functions as a sort of Wikipedia of memes, a biographical site of each meme that provides the expository information needed to understand our critical analyses. QuickMeme collects all examples of a specific meme type. I also cleaned up the layout of each page’s images to look nicer on a computer monitor.

Using Google Sites turned out to have distinct advantages and disadvantages. While Google Sites made it easy for me to make simple edits to pages and easily clean up visual layouts, the platform’s general instability made it necessary to root around in each page’s HTML code to resolve a few nasty layout issues. However, the platform’s ease of use made it the obvious choice when we first created the site, and I do not regret this choice.

The web used to be built around text and hyperlinks. These days, it’s a primarily visual platform. In editing this site, I learned how important it is to make sure a website has a pleasing visual layout. Audience retention depends on interesting eye-candy and easily navigable layout: I believe we succeeded on those fronts. Working on this project has made me realize that, as a participant in a writing classroom, I take into account the audience’s reception of my work, and as an editor for the website, I value the importance of consistency in web design.